Kamaishi schoolboys team up with superstars to boost rugby's appeal

A declining population and the perception that rugby is a dangerous sport hardly bode well for a successful high school rugby team, even in a town whose history is steeped in the sport. But Shunsuke Kawahata, Shogo Fumota and their Kamaishi High School teammates are hoping a recent visit from rugby royalty will help their side overcome several obstacles -- the first of which is getting 15 players on the field. (Former Australia international Matt Giteau, left, and 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, 2nd from left, give some tips to the backs from the Kamaishi High School rugby team during a training session at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on May 6, 2019.) "The male population is declining, so while the baseball team is still OK, rugby and other sports have suffered," 17-year-old Kawahata, a third-year student who plays scrumhalf, told Kyodo News. "Rugby is still regarded as a minor sport and people are scared about tackling," said Fumota, also 17, and a second-year student who plays flyhalf. "It's been hard for the school team. We've had to borrow players from other sports to join tournaments or play with 14, which is really tough when we get an injury," he said. For many people visiting Japan this fall for the Rugby World Cup, there will be no bigger story than the way the game has helped Kamaishi rebuild from the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. According to the city office, 1,064 people were killed, or some 3 percent of the population, and as many as 9,883 survivors were forced to evacuate their homes, in the disaster. (Former Australia international Matt Giteau, center, and ex Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose, 2nd from right, play touch rugby with the Kamaishi High School rugby team during a training session at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on May 6, 2019.) The boys in the Kamaishi High School team are hoping the two World Cup games at the brand new Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium will see the sport once again take center stage. After all, rugby has been an integral part of the Iwate Prefecture town, with Nippon Steel Kamaishi Rugby Football Club winning seven straight All-Japan Championship titles between 1979 and 1985. It was that rugby pedigree that led England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, Australian legend Matt Giteau, French greats Thierry Dusautoir and Christian Califano and former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose to Kamaishi, to help Kawahata and Fumota in their quest to boost playing numbers in their team. Rugby World Cup sponsor Societe Generale is in the third season of producing its "Homefield Advantage" online shows. "The show basically sees Jonny and his friends go around the world showing why rugby is important and how it helps people, and Kamaishi is the perfect example," said Benoit Pensivy, the show's producer. "This year we have been to Scotland, Ivory Coast, India and Fiji and when we heard Kamaishi had been struggling to put out 15 players since 2011, we wanted to help them rebuild, help the city and help Japanese rugby." (Ex Australia international Matt Giteau, 3rd from right, and former France internationals Thierry Dusautoir, right, and Christian Califano, 2nd from right, play touch rugby with the Kamaishi High School rugby team during a training session at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on May 6, 2019.) Fumota was just one year old when Wilkinson provided rugby with one of its most iconic moments, a drop goal off his "wrong" foot to help England beat Australia in the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney. So it is probably no surprise he did not know the pedigree of the men coaching him. But it did not take long for him to realize they were worth listening to. "The coaches helped fix small things with our passing and kicking, and I realized I could have fun while I was training. I could smile and not take things so seriously," said Kawahata. Fumota agreed, saying, "At first we were too stiff and rigid, but it was great to see all our skills improving." And that improvement and sense of enjoyment -- so often missing from regular school training sessions in Japan -- was noticed by the coaches, too. "Jonny and I were keen to make sure they enjoyed themselves," said Giteau, who was in the Australia teams that lost the 2003 and 2015 World Cup finals. "They were so respectful and kept a lot to themselves early on, but as they became more comfortable they could start being themselves." "When they were tense they were worried and were dropping balls. It was almost like they were treating it as a job. But sport is all about friendship and a team achieving something as one, and sharing that enjoyment. As soon as they started enjoying themselves, their personality shone through. They relaxed, and there were fewer mistakes." "It's rare to see in Japan," added Giteau, who has spent the last two years playing for Suntory Sungoliath. (Ex Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose, left, and former France international Christian Califano, back with black cap, give some line-out tips to some forwards from the Kamaishi High School rugby team during a training session at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on May 6, 2019.) Kawahata and Fumota hope to watch the two World Cup games staged in Kamaishi, and hope those matches -- and the message and help they received from the rugby stars -- will inspire others to take up the game. "I want other kids in Kamaishi to know the fun and joy you can have playing rugby. I think it is really important to spread that message," said Kawahata. Fumota was equally enthusiastic, adding, "It's a great sport that helps develop team spirit and communication, and I hope this session and the show can create interest and get people involved." "I would love rugby to be a major sport so my message to other children is, 'Don't be scared. Give it a go.'"

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